If you subscribe to Louis C.K.’s mailing list, you received this surprise message on Saturday morning:
Horace and Pete episode one is available for download. $5.
We hope you like it.
There was no advance notice, nor any sort of publicity that C.K. was working on something for release on his website. In the past, he’s used his mailing list to drum up anticipation for a new comedy special, explain why he was hosting something on his site, or clarify how much he was charging for a product and the work he put into making it available. But Horace and Pete was dropped on his fans unannounced, much like Beyonce and Wilco did with recent surprise album releases.
What was this? Was it another comedy special by a friend that C.K. was supporting, as he had with Tig Notaro and Todd Barry? Was it a previously unseen film by C.K. that he decided to share with his fans, as he did with his 1998 project Tomorrow Night? The only way to find out was to click on the link and digitally give C.K. your five bucks. Or wait for some reviews to be posted online. But for the price of a sandwich and a little more than an hour of leisure time, that curiosity could be satisfied.
The natural expectation was for Horace and Pete to be funny. After all, this is from comedian Louis C.K. But there are few laughs in this nearly 67-minute presentation. The script has some decent jokes and humorous circumstances, notably the phenomenon of hipsters looking for the dive bar experience and an argument over liberals vs. conservatives.
But this show sets the tone early on during an exchange between C.K.’s Horace and his uncle Pete (Alan Alda). What begins as a potentially amusing dialogue between a sad sack and cranky old man quickly turns ugly and mean, with Pete making the conversation uncomfortable. And that feeling never really lets up.
C.K. and Steve Buscemi play the title characters, who share their names with the bar where virtually the entire show takes place. The establishment has been open for 100 years and has always been owned and run by a Horace and Pete in the family, whether it’s a son, brother, uncle or cousin. But the business appears to be in trouble, largely because the latest Horace and Pete don’t seem particularly interested in running the place. Yet they also don’t appear to have anywhere else to go. (Horace even lives in an apartment above the bar, living with a girlfriend that family and friends don’t seem to like.)
Despite a set that looks like a 1970s Norman Lear sitcom, Horace and Pete is largely a drama which seems bent on portraying the difficulties and struggles of personal relationships (among family and friends), owning a business, depression, and general day-to-day existence. There is no one happy in this story. Everyone is miserable. Some have just found better ways of dealing with it than others. Maybe that’s why dive bars like Horace and Pete’s exist. They provide a place where people can forget, commiserate or escape.
The best way to think of Horace and Pete is as a stage play. If there was any doubt about that, the presentation even includes an intermission. This belongs more in a theater than on a computer, digital device or television. In that setting, it wouldn’t seem strange at all. You might even feel compelled to applaud the cast after the play was finished. That is, if you weren’t stuck in your chair, stunned that what you guessed might be a comedy turned out to be possibly the most depressing thing you’ve seen in 2016.
(Whether or not this is a one-off effort or a series isn’t clear, but the website looks to be set up for three to four episodes.)
But if you can get past the curiosity of something completely different from what you may have expected, Horace and Pete is actually rather engaging. This isn’t a vanity acting workshop. C.K. and his fellow actors make their characters real. Each of them seems to have a backstory, whether it’s explained during the production or not. The writing seems sharp (unless some of the play is improvised), though not every character or scenario works. Some instances feel tacked on, as if C.K. wanted to say something, but not enough to elaborate.
The most pleasant surprise of the entire endeavor is the cast C.K. assembled. Joining him, Buscemi and Alda are Rebecca Hall, Jessica Lange, Aidy Bryant and Edie Falco. Comedians Steven Wright, Nick DePaolo and Liza Treygar are also in the cast, given a chance to show their acting chops. (The family name of Wittel is likely also a tribute to Harris Wittel, who died nearly a year ago.) Paul Simon wrote and composed the theme song. If a production with that cast was showing at a theater near you, would you see it? If it was broadcast on a network like FX or HBO, would you watch?
In reading some comment and message board threads about Horace and Pete, many viewers seem to be upset over having to pay five dollars for something they otherwise would have chosen to avoid. And maybe there was a little bit of trickery involved in not telling people what this project was. But C.K. didn’t twist anyone’s arm to pay for this either. It was posted on his website and sent out to his subscribers, take it or leave it.
C.K. is in the unique position of being able to do whatever the hell he wants. And he has the luxury of a fanbase that’s willing to follow him wherever he might go, even if it’s to something unexpected or unenjoyable. Perhaps he’s taken advantage of that a bit, posting challenging material like Tomorrow Night and now Horace and Pete. But he doesn’t necessarily owe anyone an explanation for that. C.K. got to do something with his friends, and shared it with his fans. We don’t have to like everything he does (even Louie can be a tough watch sometimes), but it’s really quite cool that he’s created an outlet for himself that makes stuff like this available.
But maybe something a little funnier next time, huh? As in life, laughs make the misery more tolerable.